Hugo Chavez’s Holy War

When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently took his oath of office for a second term, he swore it in the name of Jesus Christ, who he called “the greatest socialist of history.” It’s hardly an accident that Chavez would hark on Christianity in addressing his people. For years, Venezuela has been a religious battleground, with Chavez pursuing a combative relationship with the Catholic Church.

When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently took his oath of office for a second term, he swore it in the name of Jesus Christ, who he called “the greatest socialist of history.”  It’s hardly an accident that Chavez would hark on Christianity in addressing his people.  For years, Venezuela has been a religious battleground, with Chavez pursuing a combative relationship with the Catholic Church. 

In Venezuela, Catholics have a potent political voice and make up about 70% of the country’s population.  Ever since taking office in 1999, Chavez has repeatedly clashed with the clergy.  The President frequently chastised Venezuelan bishops, accusing them of complicity with corrupt administrations that preceded his rule.

To a certain extent, a clash was inevitable.  Unlike some other Latin American countries which were characterized by so-called liberation theology, the Venezuelan Church has never had a leftist tendency.  According to observers, as few as one in 10 priests identify with the left and out of more than 50 bishops only a handful are sympathetic to Chavez.

The Venezuelan Church: A Bastion of Conservatism

Despite the conservative nature of the Church, relations between the clergy and the Chavez government got off to a reasonably good start.  After he was first elected in 1998, Chavez proclaimed his devotion to the Church and Catholic social doctrine.  Venezuelan bishops in turn supported the social programs that Chavez had outlined during his presidential campaign.  Bishops welcomed Chavez’s calls to end corruption, to foster a more equitable distribution of wealth, transparent voting, and an end to the ruling class’ special privileges. 

Thing went awry, however, in July, 1999 when Chavez personally met with Monsignor Baltazar Porras at the headquarters of the Episcopal Conference.  Porras, the Archbishop of the Andean city of Merida and chairman of the Episcopal Conference, met with Chavez for two hours. 

Emerging from the meeting, Porras declared that the Venezuelan government had opted to cut its traditional subsidies to the Church by up to 80%.  The new rules, Porras said, would oblige clerical authorities to adjust to “the new realities of the country, and to figure out how to search for self financing.”  Porras became a vocal critic of the regime; in Caracas he received the backing of the Papal Nuncio, Monsignor André Dupuy.

Another point of friction was Chavez’s calls for a new Constitution.  Church leaders feared that Chavez’s secret agenda in calling for the new constitution was the imposition of a Cuban-style communist regime.  Porras declared that Chavez was fomenting “fear and hate” and dividing Venezuelans in his campaign to draft a constitution.

Traveling to Merida

Recently I was in Caracas to give a talk and decided to take a night bus to Merida, a city located about seven hundred kilometers south-west of the capital.  I was eager to learn more about the Church in Venezuela, and how its relations had deteriorated so dramatically with Chavez.

I drifted off to sleep in the bus.  Climbing up and down through the mountains, the landscape was dotted with cacti.  By the next day, exhausted from the trip, I made my way to a posada or inn near the Central Square.  Five years earlier, I’d stayed in the same place while pursuing research for my dissertation on the foreign oil industry in Venezuela. 

Merida is a favored tourist destination and feels like a Venezuelan version of Switzerland with hotels, cyber cafes and vegetarian restaurants appealing to foreigners.  In the main square of the city, Venezuelan hippies in their twenties play guitar and sell artisan work.  Despite its traditional religious outlook, Merida also has a university which has had a long tradition of leftist politics.

A few days after recuperating from my long trip, I headed to the Cathedral in Merida’s central square.  There, I spoke with Monsignor Alfredo Torres, General Vicar of the local Archdiocese.  A long time fixture of the local church establishment, Torres went into the seminary when he was fifteen years old. 

When I asked Torres how relations had deteriorated so badly between Chavez and Porras, the local clergyman explained, “The militarist, socialistic bent of the government was always a critical point for the Archbishop.”

Church-Military Relations Break Down

By 2000, the role of the military had certainly become a controversial political issue.  During his first year in power, Chavez, himself a former paratrooper, faced a very unenviable political environment.  Congress and the Supreme Court were in the hands of the opposition, as were the majority of mayoral districts and governorships.  Meanwhile, oil stood at only $7 a barrel. 

In desperation, Chavez called on the armed forces to carry out ambitious public works projects—the so-called Plan Bolivar 2000.  The plan proved reportedly divisive within the military, with some soldiers feeling uncomfortable in their new social role. 

The Church missed no opportunity to criticize Chavez’s military policy.  Caracas Archbishop Ignacio Velasco remarked publicly that “something is making the armed forces nervous.”  Velasco recommended that the armed forces should meet to decide whether soldiers should have the right to express themselves openly. 

Furthermore, Velasco remarked sarcastically, the Minister of Defense, Ismael Hurtado Soucre, always tried to smooth over problems and make believe that nothing was wrong within the military ranks.  That elicited a sarcastic rejoinder in turn from Hurtado, who remarked that the Church certainly had its own share of problems.

Chavez vs. Castillo Lara

Chavez did not assuage the Church’s fears when he declared famously that several bishops and the Vatican’s former representative in Venezuela, Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, had allied with the country’s “rancid oligarchy.”

“It would appear,” said Chavez, “that a very small group of bishops has something personal against the President.”

Even more inflammatory still, Chavez suggested that priests such as Castillo ought to subject themselves to an exorcism because “the devil has snuck into their clerical robes.”  

In a personal riposte, Chavez sought to link Castillo with earlier corrupt administrations.  “Where were you when the bankers robbed more than $7,000,000,000 under the government of Rafael Caldera, your personal friend, during the financial crisis of 1994?  Did you say anything when the police massacred the people on the 27th of February [during the Caracazo, massive urban riots in Caracas in 1989]?”

Incensed, Castillo compared Chavez to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Meanwhile, the Church grew increasingly more concerned about the Constitution, which failed to guarantee the protection of life beginning at conception.

War of Words Escalates: Vargas Tragedy

In the midst of the escalating battle over the Constitution, disaster struck when rains hit the state of Vargas, on the coast near Caracas.  I had the occasion to visit the area over this past summer, and what one is immediately struck by is the precarious housing built on steep hillsides.  When the rains hit, they created massive landslides that swept away everything.  A catastrophe of epic proportions, the Vargas rains led to the deaths of between 10 and 20,000 people.

In Vargas, I spoke with people who were still, seven years later, waiting to be evacuated.  Living in dilapidated housing and mired in poverty, their plight was certainly depressing.  Nevertheless, it should be said that the government carried out a Herculean job, evacuating 190,000 people.  I visited one recently built housing complex, Ciudad Miranda, which housed many of the refugees.

At a moment of crisis, the Church insinuated itself into the Vargas crisis by making critical public statements.  In a reference to Chavez, Archbishop Velasco remarked that the Vargas tragedy was the “wrath of God,” because “the sin of pride is serious and nature itself reminds us that we don’t have all the power or abilities.”

Chavez’s Papal Gambit

As prominent Church figures such as Castillo and Velasco became more combative, Chavez sought to override local opposition by traveling personally to Rome where he met with Pope John Paul II.  Venezuela has attached much importance to its relationship to the Vatican and has an Ambassador there. 

Chavez took advantage of his Papal interview to confess.  “It was extraordinary for me, a practicing Catholic,” Chavez remarked, “…to have words with the Pope.”

Chavez, who discussed controversial issues with the Pope such as abortion, also sought to court the Pontiff by emphasizing common concerns such as the “savage” neo-liberal economic order, “which had brought people to misery, especially in the Third World.”

A month after his trip to Rome, the Papal Nuncio in Caracas, Leonardo Sandri, brought Chavez a verbal message from the Pope regarding the constitutional process in Venezuela.  According to Sandri, the Sacred See expressed its concerns about guaranteeing life from its original conception within Venezuela’s new constitution. Later, Chavez met with Archbishop Velasco, who also expressed his concerns about the right to life.

Church-State Relations Break Down in Merida

Back in Merida, I query Torres about the breakdown in relations.

“Here in the archdiocese,” Torres remarked, “we got into a very precarious financial situation.  We receive money from the parishes, cultural and academic activities and the well organized Archdiocese museum.  We get financing from private companies and banks, but the government doesn’t help.”

Torres said that the government had withdrawn funding from the archdiocese and seminary.  He claimed, moreover, that the Church had experienced some financial turmoil.  The Church, he said, had media enterprises in Merida including print, radio, and TV. 

However, he declared that recently El Vigilante, a Church newspaper, had been forced to close for economic reasons.  Meanwhile, the TV and radio station had very few financial resources to continue their work.

There were other disputes early on which set the course for future conflict.  For example, a quarrel over the Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz Hospital Foundation, which had been managed by the Merida clergy since the mid 1990s, turned nasty. 

“The Church managed the local hospital,” Torres explained.  “The government provided the money for the staff.  The archbishop sought equipment abroad.  But, the government disregarded our contract after Chavez assumed power.”

In Merida: Porras vs. Chavez

According to the government, Porras was corrupt.  The Merida State Governor, Florencio Porras [a long time Chavista, retired Captain and active participant in Chavez’s aborted 1992 coup against then President Carlos Andres Perez], declared that public funding as well as private donations which were supposed to go towards the maintenance of the hospital had disappeared and Baltazar Porras was responsible.             

Baltazar Porras shot back that there was a “witch hunt” against him.  Chavez was personally apprised of the matter and the Attorney General proceeded with an investigation into Porras’ bank accounts.

Dramatically, the police as well as the Directorate of Intelligence and Prevention Services, a special police and intelligence force [known by its Spanish acronym Disip] moved into the hospital and confiscated the facility’s records.  The action was coordinated by federal authorities including the office of the national Comptroller General.   

In a further move which antagonized the Church, state authorities actually took over the management of the Hospital Foundation.  Torres bristles when discussing the incident.  Porras, he says, was accused of being a thief when in actuality it was the state which had behaved crookedly.  The authorities, he said, confiscated the hospital’s equipment. 

Even as the government moved to clamp down on the Church in Merida, Chavez himself was heating up the rhetoric.  The President accused Porras of being an “adeco [members of the discredited and corrupt political party Accion Democratica, which had ruled the country for years prior to Chavez’s election] with a cassock.”  Adding fuel to the fire, Chavez remarked that the Church was “an accomplice in corruption.”

Papal Intrigue

Chavez’s holy war threatened to spill over and destabilize relations with the Vatican.  In late 2000, John Paul II remarked that “a democracy without values becomes authoritarianism.”  The Pope made his remarks during an accreditation ceremony for the Venezuelan Ambassador to the Vatican, Ignacio Quintana. 

In Venezuela, politicians tried to make sense of the Pope’s comments.  Jose Vicente Rangel, the Minister of External Relations, declared that he agreed with John Paul’s statement.  “In that sense I am more Popish than the Pope,” Rangel said.

In speaking with the press, Quintana assured journalists that the Pope “respected” the Bolivarian Revolution.  The new ambassador claimed, furthermore, that high authorities within the Vatican sympathized with Chavez and the social changes taking place in Venezuela. 

Lurking in the background however, Porras added his own spin to John Paul’s address.  When the Pope said “a democracy without values,” Porras said, the Pontiff was clearly referring to Venezuela.

While it’s unclear what the Pope exactly meant, the Vatican sought to appease conservatives by giving the nod to Ignacio Velasco.  In early 2001 the Archbishop of Caracas was named a Cardinal by the Pope.  As such, he represented a dangerous potential enemy for Chavez. 

In a gesture of congratulations for his new position, Quintana, the Venezuelan Ambassador to the Vatican, gave the Caracas Archbishop a pectoral cross made out of gold. 

Chavez himself traveled back to the Vatican shortly after the 9-11 attacks to meet with the Pope.  In an effort to smooth relations and emphasize common ground, Chavez remarked, “The Pope has declared in the last few days something that we have also said: that we do not support war…The war is against hunger…The Pope has said that one cannot respond to violence with more war.  I also say the same, for that reason I came to seek his guidance.”

Lead up to coup

In late 2001, Chavez was confronting an angry opposition led by old guard labor, business and oil executives at the state run oil company, PdVSA.  The Church seemed to be moving towards the opposition camp.  In January, 2002 Andre Dupuy, the Papal Nuncio, told Chavez that he was worried about a possible “radicalization” of the internal conflict in Venezuela. 

Chavez in turn shot back that Dupuy was interfering in the country’s political affairs.  In another address the same month, Chavez characterized the Church as a “tumor” on society.  A few days later, perhaps recanting that he had gone too far, Chavez invited Venezuelan bishops to participate in a dialogue, an offer the clergy rejected.

From there it was all downhill.  The Church joined forces with the CTV, a large labor union, and Fedecamaras, the business federation.  The outspoken Porras declared that, “governments that are democratically elected which do not comply with their promises become illegitimate.”

The President of the Episcopal Conference added that anti-government strikes and protests, which had intensified, were not part of a conspiracy but the consequence of Chavez’s own dogged behavior.

Chavez responded with more hyperbolic rhetoric of his own, suggesting that archbishop Velasco “pray a little” and “look into his conscience.”  Speaking during his radio and TV show, Alo, Presidente!, Chavez criticized Velasco’s interference in the political arena.  Chavez praised the Pope, while criticizing what he called “a small group of clergy that doesn’t amount to more than five people.”

The Chavez/Porras Interview

It wasn’t long, however, before the “small group” actively moved into the camp of those seeking to overturn Chavez’s government.  During the April 2002 coup, prominent Catholics such as Velasco sided with the opposition against the president.  Velasco, who had earlier met with Chavez during the constitutional controversy, even offered his residence as a meeting place for the coup plotters. 

What is more, he signed the “Carmona decree” that swept away Venezuela’s democratic institutions.  Senior Catholic bishops themselves attended the inauguration ceremony for Pedro Carmona, Venezuela’s Dictator-For-a-Day.   

In an ironic twist, Chavez personally called Porras from the presidential palace, Miraflores, and the Archbishop agreed to act as the President’s personal custodian and guarantor in the midst of the coup.  On April 12, Chavez was brought to Tiuna Fort, a military facility in Caracas. 

There, at 3:40 PM Chavez was received at the doors by Porras himself as well as José Luis Azuaje, the Secretary General of the Episcopal Conference.  According to Porras, who was later interviewed by the Spanish newspaper El Pais, the two spoke for hours in the midst of the tense political situation.

“He [Chavez] was serene,” Porras explained, “very serene, and spoke to us in an intimate, confessional tone…We wanted to give him strength and energy to examine the present and to be able to look towards the future.”

Porras added, “Chavez asked me for forgiveness for the way he had treated me.”  According to the Archbishop, Chavez moreover expressed sorrow that he had not been able to achieve a more amicable relationship with the Church.

Poisonous Relations Return

After his interview with Porras, Chavez was taken to the remote island of Orchila.  Cardinal Velasco later confirmed that he too went to Orchila, where he spoke with the Venezuelan President.  According to Velasco, Chavez forgave himself and the two reportedly even prayed together.

Shortly thereafter Chavez was triumphantly restored to power.  Later, he clutched a crucifix when giving evidence to a televised parliamentary commission investigating the deaths of 17 marchers who participated in an anti-government demonstration and later coup attempt.

Meanwhile, the Episcopal Conference drafted a statement condemning the “tragic occurrences” of April, 2002.  Bishops stated, however, that “in the current moment of uncertainty and tension it is necessary for the government and society to open a space for real dialogue.”  Porras added that the goodwill of the president should be demonstrated with concrete deeds.

In an effort to appease the Church, Chavez later requested that the Church help to mediate in the ongoing conflict with the political opposition, which heated up later that year during an oil lock out.  Bizarrely, the opposition called on the Church to exorcise Chavez in an effort to counter possession by demons. 

Velasco, who apparently thought the request went too far, ruled out the possibility but was still critical of the government.  In the midst of the escalating war of words, John Paul II called for peace and reconciliation.

Whatever goodwill had existed following the coup quickly dissipated.  Chavez later stated that “there are bishops from the Catholic Church who knew a coup was on the way, and they used church installations to bring coup plotters together … those clerics are immoral and spokesmen for the opposition.” 

Meanwhile, a government commission recommended that the Attorney General’s office open an investigation into Cardinal Velasco and Baltazar Porras for presumed participation in the April coup.  Velasco claimed to have received death threats.  When the Cardinal died about a year after the coup, removing one of the key opposition figures in the Church, riot police had to disperse crowds with rubber bullets at the funeral. 

As the funeral procession proceeded, Chavez supporters shouted insults such as “Justice has been done—he was a coup plotter!”, and “The rats bury their rat!” Reportedly, pro-government demonstrators also stormed the cathedral where Velasco lay in state. 

Merida: an Embattled City

During the tumultuous days after the coup, Porras found himself besieged even within his home town of Merida.  A manifesto soon appeared in the city, published by the “Revolutionary Justice, Truth and Dignity Movement.” 

In the pamphlet, the group declared that Porras was persona non grata, a traitor and a political fanatic.  The manifesto claimed that Porras was “a destructive, disruptive, agitating, subversive element” for society.  The group also attacked Velasco, who was referred to as “Judas.”

In late 2002, Porras was verbally insulted by Chavez followers in the Merida State Legislature.  Porras had been invited to speak on the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Merida Cardinal Jose Humberto Quintero.  Chavez officials from the State Legislature held banners and interrupted the proceedings by shouting. 

I have always been struck by the religious tone in the city of Merida.  When I was first there as a graduate student, in 2001, I observed many shops selling religious artifacts and candles.  Over this past summer, when I returned, I saw the main church full of people during Sunday mass.  Speaking with local residents in Merida, I learned that the city had been touched by political change. 

The woman who managed the posada where I was staying remarked that social programs initiated after the coup had made a modest difference in the lives of meridenos.  Her children, for example, were now attending some of the new Bolivarian schools (she complained, however, that parents had to shell out money of their own to maintain the school).

Poor people, she said, were now receiving food at the local government sponsored soup kitchens.  Near to the posada on a side street, I saw a cooperatively run restaurant sponsored by the government’s vuelvan caras or “turning lives around” program.

To get more information about changes in Merida society, I headed to a government building on the main square, near the Cathedral.  Peering around inside, I noticed that the offices were plastered with posters of Chavez, Che Guevara and Simon Bolivar. 

Upstairs, I spoke with Ruben Aguila Cerati, Director of Electoral Politics for Chavez’s MVR party in the State of Merida, and a former member of the Venezuelan Communist Party.  Cerati, a colorful, jolly man who had been a guerrilla fighter himself, explained to me that gender relations had changed dramatically. 

“Today we have 153,000 meridenos registered in the MVR [Chavez’s political party].  Fifty three percent of these people are women.  In the political assemblies, women are the dominant force.  I can’t say there is no machismo here in Merida, but women have been liberated.”

Merida Church and Social Reforms

Not everyone has embraced the social changes in the city, however.  Back in the main cathedral, Torres spoke of chronic poverty in Merida’s barrios, remarking that “change for the better has not reached the people, who continue to search for a means of survival.”

Torres, echoing the criticisms of the opposition, also touched on the issue of insecurity.  “There’s been an increase in criminal activity,” he said.  “Merida used to be a very safe area.” 

“That’s the government’s fault?” I asked.

“The government hasn’t acted to adopt the necessary measures to stop crime,” he replied. “People are afraid to go out at night.  You didn’t notice this before, there wasn’t so much violence.” 

I asked Torres about the controversial role of Cuban doctors who had come to Venezuela to provide medical assistance for poor residents.

“We think that…this assistance has not resolved the health problem amongst the people,” Torres answered.  He criticized conditions in a local hospital, remarking that “the service is horrible; people need to buy sheets, medicine and other necessities.”

“Would you prefer that the Cuban doctors leave the country?” I asked.

“The doctors have helped,” Torres conceded.  “However, the overall health situation hasn’t changed.” 

I turned the discussion towards education, a historically contentious issue between the Church and Chavez authorities.  Torres admitted that the Bolivarian schools had set up new cafeterias, a positive development.  In an echo of what the Senora had said in the posada, however, he criticized the government for not providing necessary assistance to local schools.

“A sign of this phenomenon,” Torres exclaimed, “is that if you want a place in a Catholic school they are all filled up.  Everyone wants to get a spot.” 

Government and Church Spar Over Land

Another controversial measure pushed by Chavez has been land reform.  I had wanted to tour the countryside but unfortunately fell sick with an acute case of bronchitis and had to curtail my trip.  I did, however, query Torres about the issue.

The clergyman voiced serious reservations.  In the wake of the land reform, he said, the campesinos had become radicalized and this had led to a serious confrontation “and an invasion of farms which brings problems and puts a break on development.”

I wanted to get Torres’ views on land reform as well.  Before conducting my interview with the local priest, I had read an article in La Frontera, a local opposition paper, arguing that local cattle ranchers had been obliged to hire hit men to defend themselves, ostensibly against kidnapping. 

The Minister of Interior accused the ranchers of inflating the kidnapping figures in an effort to justify the hiring of hit men, who had in turn killed campesinos [the secretary of the campesino federation has said that his colleagues have been killed by the hit men “as a result of the campesino struggle for land”].

Torres conceded that violence had escalated in the countryside.  However, he said the government was responsible for encouraging an overall climate of delinquent behavior which did not help the situation. 

“I think all of this government rhetoric starts to generate violence,” he said.   

Across the square I spoke with Cerati about the rural situation.  He began first by extolling Chavez’s various “mission” programs which had transformed the countryside.

“The campesinos now know how to read and write,” he exclaimed enthusiastically.  “Here there is no longer any illiteracy: that is extraordinary.”

The discussion then turned to health matters, and I queried Cerati about the Cuban doctors.  “Campesinos,” he noted, “who had never seen a doctor now have them right at their side.  The Cuban doctors have incorporated themselves into the peasantry.  The campesinos are not suspicious of communism.”

Unlike Torres, who blamed the government for rural violence, Cerati pointed the finger at powerful interests.  “Campesinos,” he said, “have been killed and assassinated by these landlords.  This has happened in the south of Lake Maracaibo, in Barinas, and in Yaracuy.  The land belongs to the campesinos, the revolutionaries.” 

“Merida has traditionally been very conservative and dominated by the Church,” I remarked.  “How do you see the situation in the countryside, is it the Church supporting the landlords, and the government supporting the campesinos?”

“The clergy has always been right wing,” Cerati answered.  “It’s always represented the oligarchies, the bourgeoisie.  But, now the majority of the lower tier clergy are with the Bolivarian process.  There’s an incredible difference between the clergy here in the city of Merida and the priests out in the countryside.” 

Castillo Lara Turns Up the Pressure

Porras meanwhile backed efforts to recall Chavez as president.  In 2003 he remarked that Chavez had abused his power and his regime was a profound “social failure.”  Chavez shot back that Porras had become a spokesperson for the opposition and should take off his cassock because he was not a dignified man of Christ.  “God is with the Bolivarian Revolution,” Chavez said, “and here there are people with cassocks who oppose the political changes that we are carrying out.”

In his own retort, Porras responded that in Venezuela peace and goodwill had deteriorated, while poverty, unemployment, corruption, violence, homicides and kidnapping had increased. 

Porras warned about the rise of cults inspired by 20th century fascist leaders, and went so far as to equate Chavismo with Franco, Nazism, and fascism.  Porras’ frontal offensive was echoed by other Church leaders such as Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, who called for civil disobedience against the Chavez government. 

With Velasco now gone, high Church officials looked isolated within the new political environment, characterized by a fractured opposition and ascendant Chavez.      Porras, though, denied any significant political division within Church ranks.  The archbishop met personally with John Paul II, who was reportedly very worried about political conflict in Venezuela and sought a peaceful solution to the polarization.

Pope Benedict: A New Direction?

After John Paul II died in April, 2005 Chavez again went to Rome, this time to meet with the new Pope Benedict XVI.  According to Father Pedro Freites, who heads the Venezuelan School in Rome and had formerly been the head of Vatican radio for Latin America and the Caribbean, Castillo Lara did not represent the Church when he called for civil disobedience in Venezuela. 

However, in an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional he remarked that Benedict was “aware of the situation in Venezuela and of the serious danger posed to democracy.”  Castillo Lara, he added, had ties with all cardinals and had been the governor of the Vatican State.  He had submitted reports, and the Pope was concerned that a dictatorship might be imposed in Venezuela.  Ratzinger himself, Freites remarked, was close to Castillo Lara and had also spoken with Porras.

During his meeting with the Venezuelan leader, Benedict handed Chavez a letter outlining the Church’s concerns.  In the note, the Pope raised fears that religious education was being squeezed out of some Venezuelan schools.  He also touched upon Venezuela’s public health programs, expressing concern that the right to life be maintained “from its inception.”

Chavez reportedly sought to overcome his government’s differences with the Church.  At the end of their meeting, Chavez presented the Pope with a portrait of Simon Bolivar, the mythical Venezuelan independence leader who Chavez idolizes.  The picture bore an inscription from Bolivar’s will, saying that he remained, at long last, a Catholic.

Following the meeting, Chavez declared that the crisis between his government and the Church had its “limits in time, space, and personalities.”  The conflict that had existed, Chavez continued, had to do with a very small group of people.  Moreover, he was committed to “turn the page” and start over, owing to his “sense of responsibility” towards Venezuela and the doctrine of Christ. 

Church Hardliners Isolated

Indeed, Chavez had just reason to feel relieved.  Already, the Church had seemed to adopt a more conciliatory stance when it replaced the hard line French conservative Papal nuncio, Monsignor André Dupuy, with the Italian Giacinto Berlocco.  Reportedly, the new nuncio was instructed to seek a less confrontational policy towards Chavez.  

When Castillo Lara said that Venezuelans should “deny recognition” to the Chavez government, Berlocco stated that the Venezuelan Cardinal did not reflect the position of the Catholic Church in Venezuela.  Chavez praised Berlocco for carrying out what he called “quiet and patient work.” 

What’s more, after his visit with the new Pope Chavez also expressed pleasure with other new Church appointments such as Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, who in his first address called on the Church to work for unity and understanding in Venezuela, and Ubaldo Santana, the new president of the Venezuelan Episcopal Conference.

In the political reshuffle, conservatives had been sidelined.  In the race to pick a new cardinal for Venezuela, Savino, the bishop of Maracaibo, had edged out his more outspoken competitor, Porras.  According to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal, some bishops opposed Porras for taking such a radical anti-Chavez stance which had imperiled relations with the government. 

In early 2006, Castillo Lara once more attacked Chavez but his influence seemed to be much reduced.  Speaking in the west of the country before thousands of worshippers participating in a pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary, the Cardinal said the country was undoubtedly becoming a dictatorship.  When Chavez claimed there was a conspiracy in Rome to damage his government, Archbishop Urosa quickly grew concerned and condemned Castillo Lara’s remarks. 

Moving To the Future

On my recent trip, I traveled with a peace delegation to Charallave, a town outside of Caracas.  Sitting in a Mennonite church, we spoke with Jorge Martin, president of a local group of pastors.

“Chavez,” he told us, “has said that Church work should complement government efforts.  We recognize that the church needs to do social work and that the church has a role in this area.”

Indeed, even as Chavez has sparred with the Church, Protestants have become a key pillar of the president’s political support.  Back in Caracas, in fact, our delegation had observed a Protestant church which prepared government provided food for the poor.  Martin called Pat Robertson’s calls to assassinate Chavez “unfortunate.” He said that in Venezuela, Protestants of all denominations had rejected the minister’s comments. 

Over the last few years, Chavez has done his utmost to cultivate the support of Protestants, which make up 29% of the population.  He even declared that he was no longer a Catholic but a member of the Christian Evangelical Council. 

In his speeches, Chavez hardly flees from religious themes and frequently quotes from the Bible.  Bizarrely, he also tells his supporters in speeches that Christ was an anti-imperialist.

Chavez’s rhetoric, not surprisingly, has alarmed the Catholic clergy.  Freites believes that Chavez’s long-term goal is to “create a parallel Church…that identifies with the revolutionary process.”

While such views may be exaggerated, it is impossible to overlook religious overtones in everyday Venezuelan politics.  During my visit to a government housing project in Ciudad Miranda outside Caracas, I spotted banners on the street reading, “With Chavez, Christian Socialism.”

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (St. Martin’s, 2006).  He is currently working on another book, South America’s New Direction, about the political realignment in South America (also to be released by St. Martin’s in 2008).